On Sanskrit Prosody – an interview with Prof. Kashinath Nyaupane

In this interview Prof. Kashinath Nyaupane answers questions about Sanskrit prosody, with particular reference to the composition of the Bodhicaryāvatāra.

Q: Dear Professor Kashinath, could you give a brief introduction to Sanskrit rules of composition and prosody (i.e., the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry)?

For this, please refer to the book on Sanskrit meters, written by me and published by Rangjung Yeshe Institute.

(This book has been made available with the kind permission of Prof. Kashinath for free download with romanized text Sanskrit Meter_2009_Romanised text and in Devanagari script Sanskrit Meter_2009_Devanagari. The audio recording of the Sanskrit meters described in this book is available here:)


Q: How many types of meter are there in Sanskrit poetry?

It is difficult to say precisely how many meters there are in Sanskrit prosody. But it is known that around 600 different meters along with the definitions and examples are available in written form in Sanskrit. And one meter will also have its different types and varieties, so it is impossible to say how many meters there are. For example: Anustubh has 108 sub-types.

Q: What do these meters express or convey? Does the choice of meter reflect a specific mood in relation to the content of the text?

Yes, meters are used to express different moods of the content. It depends upon the writer and is quite arbitrary. But in Mahakavya-s (epics), there are certain traditions for using different meters to denote heroism, misery, joy etc. For instance, in Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa’s eight canto, to express the death of the Queen, a meter that represents sadness has been used. Therefore, sometimes meters do express the situation.

Q: What are the aspects of Sanskrit poetry other than its meter that determine the beauty of a composition?

There are many other aspects of Sanskrit poetry that determine the beauty of a composition, such as the dhvani, alankara, guna, reeti The three main elements that determine the beauty are:
1. The use of metaphors.
2. The depth of the meaning.
3. The use of precise tender beautiful words.

Q: The Bodhicaryāvatāra is often praised for the beauty of its poetry, yet, at the same time, the bulk of the text is composed in anustubh which is a rather common meter in classical and post-classical Sanskrit literature. What makes the beauty of the BCA’s poetry?

Firstly, Bodhicaryavatara has not been entirely composed in anustubh, there are other meters used as well. The presence of Anustubh only does not make a poetry common or un-unique. If the right elements of poetry are present, even the poems in Anustubh sound very beautiful. Please refer to the fourth question for this. For the perfection of a poem, the elements mentioned above must be complete in the poem. For instance, please see Asvaghosha’s Soundarananda’s first and second canto and also the first canto of Raghuvamsa of Kalidasa. Thus, it proves that despite having only the common meter anustubh used to compose the poetry, a poem still sounds very beautiful. The same goes for Bodhicaryavatara.

But then, Bodhicaryavatara is not that well praised as a great example of poetry and literature. There are many others, which are deemed more beautiful in terms of poetry.

Q: Please explain the construction of an anustubh verse, and the significance of this meter? Why is this verse form in particular so common?

For the explanation of the construction of anustubh, please refer to the meter book that I shall send along with these answers. If you have further questions about it then, please ask me.

Anustubh is significant in Sanskrit poetry because it can be easily composed. It is very easy to use in composition of poems of all sorts, in all conditions. Hence, it is quite common. It is one of the most respected meters, despite its commonness.

Q: Which other meters did Śāntideva use in the Bodhicaryāvatāra?

He used quite a lot of meters in Bodhicaryavatara. They are as follows:
Sishulila, Viyogini, Indravajra, Upendravajra, Upajaati, Sardulavikriditam, Kokilakam, Anustubh, Sikharini, Sragdhara, Aaryaa and so on.

There are more than twenty different meters used, but the common ones are the ones that have been listed.

Q: When you chant the BCA, you chose different melodies for several verses. Are the melodies determined by the meter, or do you have some liberty in choosing the melody?

There is a common pattern for the melodies of a meter, but the chanter does have the liberty to change the tone, range, and register while chanting the meter. The melodies also vary according to the places. For example: a meter sounds different in South India than in Nepal.

Q: How does the BCA compare to other Sanskrit compositions? Could we say that it possibly attracted followers just through the beauty of its composition, or do you think that would be an exaggerated statement?

The BCA is a standard example of Sanskrit literature, and it lives up to its name. But there are other great compositions that outrank BCA in terms of beauty of literature. The works of Kalidasa, Asvaghosha, Bhartrihari, Amaruka etc. are deemed more beautiful in terms of raw literature.

BCA did not gain followers due to the beauty of its composition. It attracted followers due to the matter, content or the vast amount of divine wisdom that is within it. Moreover, the book became so renowned due to the philosophical debate in the ninth canto.

Q: For example, in Chapter 8, when Śāntideva concludes his praise of solitude and begins the meditation on the equality of self and others, the verses 86-91 stand out with their different melodies and meters. Can you explain the specific characteristics of the meter in these verses?

evamudvijya kāmebhyo viveke janayedratim|
kalahāyāsaśūnyāsu śāntāsu vanabhūmi
u ||85||

This sloka has been composed in the common meter anustubh.

dhanyai śaśākakaracandanaśītaleu
u harmyavipuleu śilātaleu ||86||

This sloka has been composed in Vasantatilaka. Please refer to my meter book for its characteristics and examples.

vihtya yatra kvacidiṣṭakāla
śūnyālaye v
katale guhāsu|
āvirato yatheṣṭam ||87||

This sloka has been composed in the meter Upajati.

svacchandacāryanilaya pratibaddho na kasyacit|
toasukha bhukte tadindrasyāpi durlabham ||88||
san bodhicitta tu bhāvayet ||89||
parātmasamatāmādau bhāvayedevamādarāt|

samadukhasukhā sarve pālanīyā mayātmavat ||90||

These three are composed in Anustubh.

hastādibhedena bahuprakāra
kāyo yathaika
tathā jagadbhinnamabhinnadu
sarvamida tathaiva //91//

This sloka has been composed in the meter Upajaati.

This interview was held by Julia Stenzel.